RETURN TO CORINTH
The ride back toward Corinth was a somber affair. The two women riding in total silence, the sounds of the forest around them the only sounds to reach their ears. The grief and guilt hung about the two travelers like a heavy cloak, oppressive and stifling in the midday sun.
Xena's thoughts were her own, locked tightly away within the recesses of her mind where they festered like a wound, taunting her with unrelenting ferocity. I sent her away. I gave her over to them. It's my fault she's dead. My fault, no one else's. Her blood is now on my hands, staining them forever. Gods...Gabrielle...I can't do this. I can't take this. I can't go on... The warrioress felt as though she was drowning in a sea of her own guilt, and the worst part of it all, was that she didn't want to survive the drowning.
Ephiny found herself in an unusual situation, taking the lead back to Corinth, scouting the trail and the trees ahead for any sign of Horde soldiers. Her thoughts were equally as distracting, but forced herself, for Xena's sake, to push them to the side, for now. She owed it to her friend, to her Queen, to see that Xena returned to Corinth safely. But Ephiny feared that she had already lost the Warrior Princess. Lost her to that empty chasm that was once filled by the gentle soul of her best friend.
The return trip took longer than the journey out, since there seemed to be a greater number of Horde patrols out that day. It was well after dark when Xena and Ephiny finally drew within sight of the hidden rear entrance to the city. The Amazon's bird call was promptly returned, surprising her a bit. She had hoped that some of her own warriors would be on the walls already, but didn't honestly think they would have been integrated into the rotations so soon.
The door swung open to reveal the expectant faces of two members of the Royal Guard, who reacted with obvious disappointment at seeing Ephiny and Xena without Gabrielle. The questions were voiced before Ephiny could silence them.
"Where is the Queen?" Jana asked, concern evident in her voice.
"Were you not able to find her?"
The simple yet so very obvious questions tore at Xena's wounded heart. Without a word or even a glance toward the Amazons, she angrily spurred Argo onward to the stables.
"What's happened? Ephiny?" Jana asked quietly.
The Amazon Queen could not bring herself to speak for a long moment, as if speaking the words would make it all true, make it all real. Sensing her hesitation, and seeing the sadness in Ephiny's eyes, Jana spoke first.
"No...she can't be..."
Ephiny allowed her gaze to fall, hiding the tears that now shone in her eyes, threatening to fall.
"Ephiny, is she dead?"
The Amazon Queen now lifted her head, allowing the tears to track slowly down her cheeks. She could not voice the word, and simply nodded. She pushed roughly at her eyes, not wanting to show any weakness in front of her warriors.
"But...where...why didn't you..." The Amazon left the question hanging in the still air, not sure she wanted to hear the answer.
Ephiny swallowed hard, finally finding her voice. "Because...there was nothing to bring back."
"Nothing?" Jana breathed incredulously. "But, then how...how do you know?"
"There was no other explanation, Jana. Not for what we found...not for what we saw." Ephiny said her voice a bare whisper.
"Gods Ephiny..." Jana said gently, moving to place a comforting hand on the Queen's shoulder. The normally stoic warrior nearly lost her composure, but recovered quickly. Not now Ephiny. She scolded herself. You can fall apart later...once you're alone. Right now, they need you to be strong. So get it together!
Ephiny straightened visibly, gathering all her strength for the task at hand. The other Amazons must be told what had befallen Gabrielle, and then there was the business of a memorial. And the mask of Queenhood. All tasks that needed to be attended to, and soon. But for now the Amazon's main concern was Xena.
Argo snorted as Xena roughly pulled the tack and saddle from the mare's back. Hearing the protest from the trusted steed, Xena paused taking a deep breath, attempting to calm herself. She placed the saddle on the ground just outside the stall and then turned to run her hands gently over the mare's flanks.
"Sorry girl." The warrioress whispered. Argo swung her great head around to gently nuzzle Xena's arm, as if in sympathy. Xena managed a small upturn of her lips, not quite a smile.
"Thanks Argo. You...you miss her too, don't you?" Xena's voice broke over the question. Argo snorted in reply. "Yeah." Xena said. "What'm I gonna do, girl? It's is just too hard this time. I can't do it again." Gods Xena...get a grip already. The warrioress berated herself. Since when do you just give up like this? Since now...now that they've stolen the light that guided me.
Xena shook her head slightly. "Gods..." She whispered to herself. Ok ok...so do something about it! You were a bloodthirsty warlord once, and you know that part of you is still there, you've felt it. So use it. For once, let it serve you.
Xena finished stripping the tack from her mare and began to brush her down, the rhythm of the strokes helping to order her chaotic mind. She knew that she had to do something, anything to keep herself going. As she brushed, a plan slowly began to form in her mind. A plan just crazy enough to work, and just dangerous enough to end her suffering. Xena hurriedly finished tending to Argo and then made her way purposefully toward Marmax's command hut.
As she walked through the streets of Corinth, it struck her how very much like an armed camp the city had become. Armed men and the machines of war crammed every spare inch of the city, leaving little or no room for the inhabitants. The close quarters were wearing thin on everyone's nerves, and tempers were short. The tension hung in the still air, a palpable presence. Xena could feel it, the air of nervous tension, and knew that if something didn't break that tension soon, the situation could become very ugly.
Maybe Gabrielle could tell some...the thought froze in Xena's mind, and paralyzed her where she stood. Gods... There could be no more stories to calm young children, and set men's minds at ease. No more stories to warm a cold night around a small campfire. No endless stories along the trail, filling the days with distraction from the monotony that life on the road could become.
Xena stood stock still, in the middle of the street, and let the profound sadness that washed over her carry her away for a long minute. As the sharpness of the pain that the sadness had brought began to fade, the warrioress drew a long, deep breath and then resumed her march toward Marmax's quarters.
As the Warrior Princess came nearer to the doorway that led to Marmax's private chambers, two very heated voices could be distinctly heard coming from within. Even without her nearly superhuman hearing Xena would have been able to make out the voices clearly. She paused just outside the door to listen.
"...but sir, it's been too quiet! They're up to something, they must be! Not a movement in two days! Nothing! We must know what is happening out there! Please, sir, if I could just have..."
"No! How many times must I tell you, Commander? No! I'll not risk a single man out there on any fool reconnaissance mission! Your duty is here, preparing for an attack that is sure to come tomorrow, or at the very latest the next day. They're massing for an attack. There can be no other explanation!" Marmax's voice came through clearly, ringing with authority.
Xena had heard enough, and pushed open the door to the chamber. Marmax's head shot up, he had left strict instructions that he not be disturbed, who dared to barge in on this meeting? Upon seeing Xena standing framed in the doorway, his anger dissipated, replaced with a feeling of dread as he studied her eyes, and the nearly imperceptible slump in her shoulders. Some thing had gone terribly wrong, he could feel it.
"Xena, I didn't expect you back so soon." Marmax began, but then hesitated. He didn't like what he was seeing in her normally expressionless face. Even one who did not know the Warrior Princess well would be able to tell that she was in pain. No physical wound could bring her this type of pain. No, this was an emotional pain, which ran deep. The General didn't need to ask the question. He already knew the answer.
"You found her."
Xena had rehearsed in her mind what she would say. Knew the question would be forthcoming as soon as she saw Marmax. What she hadn't been prepared for was his unerring perception. She suddenly realized that it was written all over her face, that he knew, without having to ask.
Xena did not speak, but merely nodded once. Marmax knew not to press for details. Camp gossip spread quickly enough, and surely the Amazons would know what had happened out there. He would know the details soon enough.
Marmax cast his gaze down at his boots, not trusting his voice, nodding into his chest. He drew a breath and then turned to the soldier next to him, "Leave us Commander. We will continue this discussion later."
The young officer came to attention and saluted, then turned to leave, but a wave of Xena's hand brought him up short.
"No, stay. We have much to discuss." Xena said calmly.
Puzzled, the officer turned to the General. Marmax shrugged, turning back to the warrioress.
"What is it we need to discuss, Xena?"
"From what I could hear of your conversation, I take it that the Commander here wants to lead a scouting mission to the Horde encampment?"
"That's right." Marmax answered, not liking the look in the Warrior Princess' eyes.
"I agree with the Commander, Marmax. We need to know what's going on over there. Any intelligence we can gather will be most helpful in planning a defense. I heard you to say that there has been no Horde activity. None at all, in two full days?"
"That's also right. They've not made a move in two days. No raids, no movement at all." Marmax replied. "But Xena, are you sure it's very wise to scout that close to the Horde army? We could..."
"No, no Marmax, we need detailed information, and we need it soon. The Commander is right, the Horde is up to something. They have never been known to be idle for this long in the middle of a battle before. Never. Something is going on over there, and we need to know what it is. I'll need a small patrol. No more than five men. We'll set out at dusk, back by dawn. I'll find out what's going on over there Marmax." Xena said, the determination in her voice nearly convincing the General that this was a good plan. Marmax paused for a moment, considering Xena's proposal.
If she and the Commander were right, and the Horde did have something planned, something that they needed to be prepared for, and he didn't allow them to go and scout their position, it could spell disaster for them all. But he struggled with risking anyone unnecessarily, even if they did volunteer. And the Warrior Princess' demeanor did nothing to assuage his fears. In the end, the need for more detailed information convinced him.
"Ok Xena. I'll send out the word for volunteers. Why don't you go and get some sleep? It's still several hours to dusk."
Xena nodded once, then turned on her heel and strode from the room. Sleep? She mocked the General's advice. As if I thought I could sleep... The warrioress had no intention of returning to her quarters. Not yet. She simply didn't think she could bring herself to face that place. Xena instead headed toward the stables again, seeking escape in solitude.
The warrioress arrived to find the stables nearly deserted, occupied by one stable hand and his dozen or so charges. Seeing Xena stride in through the open doorway, he looked up from the stall he was mucking, but seeing the look on her face, he wisely decided that small talk with this warrior was not in his best interest. He followed her with his eyes for a moment, watching her approach a beautiful golden mare, before he turned his attention back to the stall.
Xena laid her hand atop Argo's golden head, stroking her muzzle absently. She could feel the exhaustion tickling at the edges of her mind, but pushed it away. She had been pushing herself relentlessly for several days now, eating only out of necessity, and sleeping even less. Now simply the thought of food turned her stomach. The discovery of the Horde campsite and the horrors there had affected Xena in ways she could not even begin to describe. Her lack of appetite was only a symptom of what she had seen. And only Horde blood would satisfy her need.
Xena could feel herself growing more and more weary, and decided that only action could keep her from sleep. She removed her repair kit from her saddlebags and sat down leaning against the stall wall and began to mend the fraying edges of her bracers. The warrioress worked steadily for several minutes before she noticed her eyes becoming increasingly heavy and that it demanded all of her concentration just to focus on the work in front of her. Try as she might, Morpheus would not be denied. Xena's head fell forward to rest upon her chest, her exhaustion, both physical and emotional, overwhelming her.
Betrayed by her body into sleep, unconscious thought was now completely out of Xena's control. The nightmares visited her then, more vivid, terrifying, and out of control than ever before. The dream shifted and wavered, Xena saw herself from outside her body as she walked amid the ruins of the Horde camp, the smell of the pyre strong in her nose. Suddenly the camp sprang to life with Horde warriors chanting in a rhythmic cadence.
Xena drew her sword, expecting to be attacked at any moment, but the warriors ignored her, instead their eyes were riveted on the spectacle being played out on the dais before them. The Warrior Princess turned her attention to the platform, the sight that greeted her froze her heart in her chest.
Several Horde priests were lowering Gabrielle onto the altar atop the dais as one massive figure stood over her wielding a wicked blade. Xena attempted to move, but found her body frozen, held fast as if within tight fist. Unable to break free, she could merely watch in horror as the blade was hoisted over Gabrielle's defenseless body.
Xena lost all semblance of reason as she watched that cruel blade plummet toward Gabrielle's heart. She struggled with all of her considerable strength against the force that held her fast, but to no avail.
"GABRIELLE! NO!" She cried out in furor and frustration, unable to do anything else, and was mildly surprised to find that she was once again, utterly ignored. Gabrielle, however, reacted to the sound of Xena's voice screaming her name. The bard turned her head to seek Xena in the throng of warriors, her eyes locking onto the Warrior Princess' with little effort.
Even amid the din, Xena could clearly hear Gabrielle's voice. "Xena! Xena help me! Don't let them sacrifice me!" The bard cried out frantically. The blade continued its downward trek and to Xena it appeared as if everything was moving at half speed. She could hear Gabrielle's pleas, and it tore at her heart. Xena struggled in vain, the force that held her in place grasping her tightly.
The nightmare held her tightly in it's grip, forcing her to endure the torture of watching her best friend, no, her soul mate, perish at the hands of the murderous priest. Gabrielle's screams pierced the cool and clear night air as the blade finally completed its journey and entered the tender flesh of her breast.
Xena could no more tear her gaze away from the spectacle before her than she could move to affect it. Everything was spinning out of her control, and the more she grasped for it, the more she could feel her tenuous hold on sanity slipping. Gabrielle was dying right before her eyes, murdered in cold blood, and she could not stop it. It tore a hole in her heart that was dark and deep, and she fell into its depths, Gabrielle's screams still echoing in her ears.
Xena jerked awake, her breathing ragged, her heart pounding in her ears. The fury and terror still coursed through her unchecked, and she was at the mercy of her emotions for several minutes. The dream had brought to the surface all the grief and rage at Gabrielle's death, and Xena now struggled to contain the emotions, but with limited success. The warrioress drew several deep breaths as she attempted to calm herself.
Xena drew her hand across her brow, wiping away the sweat threatening to drip into her eyes. This has to end. She thought forlornly. I can't go on like this. But she roughly pushed those thoughts aside. Now was not the time for self-pity. She had a mission tonight, and one that Xena hoped would provide her with some answers as to what happened in that clearing. And why a gentle soul had been sacrificed.